Academic Freedom in the UK

by @raimondiand

Few days ago the Cabinet Office announced a new clause to be added to grant agreements [1]. According to the clause:

“The following costs are not Eligible Expenditure:- Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, Government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action” [2]

The new clause will be implemented starting from May and according to the financial year. The aim of the clause is to:

“make sure that taxpayer funds are spent on improving people’s lives and good causes, rather than lobbying for new regulation or using taxpayers’ money to lobby for more government funding. It will not prevent organisations from using their own privately-raised funds to campaign as they see fit. This will ensure that freedom of speech is protected, whilst stopping taxpayers’ money being diverted away from good causes”

According to the Cabinet Office, public money spent on policy assessment are not money spent for a “good cause”. More specifically, every research project that has the potential to “influence” politics and political decisions in the UK should not have access to public funding. I see.

Suppose you are an engineer and your research shows substantial problems in the way we actually deal with preventions’ measures in building sites. Suppose these results might potentially improve the safety of workers as well as the safety of our infrastructures. It would be hard to deny this is a “good cause”. After all, academic research could (and, according to some, should) have a transformative impact; its role in society is to help understand and improve our way of life, as citizens working for a common good. But OHWAIT, since your research might have the potential to impact gov regulations then, according to the new clause, this no good cause anymore. Instead, it is perceived as a danger, as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

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But how can it be that a safety improvement magically turns out to be illegal?  More generally, one may ask, what is the point of funding and sustaining a research system that has no impact on society? fortunately, or unfortunately, the Q&A format can help understanding the rationale behind clause:

Q2: What is the purpose of the clause?

A: The purpose of this clause is to ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent appropriately in line with the intentions of elected government.

Now it’s clearer. It is not that public money cannot fund researches that don’t contribute to a “good cause”; rather, the point is that public money cannot fund researches that might work against what the elected government think is the good way to spend taxpayers’ money.

What if you actually want to stand against the proposal and say something? it might be dangerous, as you might be considered an extremist that argues against democratic values. In fact, we should all remember this is not the first time that the elected government manifests this dangerous authoritarian attitude.

A year ago, the guidance for the Prevent scheme for Education has been published [3]. According to the guidance, students from higher education should not be exposed to arguments and ideas in opposition to:

“..fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

Indeed, in order to avoid “the danger of radicalization”, the elected government suggests to avoid ideas that contrast to British values, doesn’t matter if there is no definition of what these “British values” are. You should trust, not question, the government. Ça va sans dire, this is ridiculous. Are not philosophy, or social or political studies’ students allowed to learn about political theories? Am I going against “British values” if I teach totalitarism, or socialism, or communism?

As far as I’m concerned I can just recall what Shami Chakrabarti claimed few months ago, that is, this elected government needs to learn what human rights are. At least, before taking any embarrassing decision. And no, freedom of speech is not safe because, as the Cabinet Office claims, “you can always turn to private funding for your research”.

If all of this is not a slow, meticulous and conscious attempt to undermine academic freedom, then I don’t know anymore what it takes to say that our freedom is slowly shrinking.

[1] Press release – Government announces new clause to be inserted into grant agreements

[2] Implementation Guidance for Departments on Anti-Lobbying Clause (Q&A format)  This document has been either moved or deleted. It is nonetheless available via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine here.

[3] Guidance on promoting British values in schools published ; See also: Prevent guidance for higher and further education institutions comes into effect 

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